Image: Lori Nix (Library)
Show Hide image

Read all about it: NS Books of the Year 2012

The New Statesman’s friends and contributors choose their favourite books of 2012.

Each year, in November, we ask regular contributors to the Critics pages of the New Statesman, together with other friends of the magazine, to write about their favourite books of year. There are no constraints on what kinds of books they are able to choose, so the results are often intriguing. Consensus is largely elusive, although this year a couple of titles were chosen by several of the participants - What Money Can't Buy, the political philosopher Michael Sandel's assault on the logic of market fundamentalism (the Labour leader Ed Miliband was among those to nominate Sandel) and John Jeremiah Sullivan's essay collection Pulphead.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

 

Rowan Williams

Two books this year have struck me as overwhelming in different ways. Marian Partington’s If You Sit Very Still (Vala, £15.99) is an account of coming to terms with the most appalling sort of bereavement imaginable: Marian’s sister, Lucy, was abused and murdered by Fred and Rosemary West. Her spiritual journey to a place where it is possible to contemplate all this without hatred or despair is as moving as anything I’ve ever read on such a subject.

Alan Garner’s novel Boneland (Fourth Estate, £16.99), an adult continuation of his children’s fantasies of the 1960s, is a distillation of all that makes Garner such a unique genius – written with intense, spare vividness, terrifying psychological subtlety and the kind of visual imagination that makes everything, from stones to stars, strange.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo:Nationaal Historisch Museum via Creative Commons)

A S Byatt

Jenny Uglow’s The Pinecone (Faber & Faber, £20) is about the language of carving, objects containing ideas. It is the story of Sarah Losh, a north country heiress in the early 19th century, forceful, learned, independent, who built a church full of fascinating images. The tale is mysterious because Uglow worked with almost no manuscript remains and scrupulously invented nothing. She has turned this central silence into a kind of force by describing stones, glass, things constructed, so precisely that they become not exactly alive but strangely present on the page. Their world – business, weather, politics, poets, marriages, deaths – becomes a revenant around them. I don’t know another book that feels quite like this one.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

(Photo: Getty Images)

Ed Miliband

The Fear Index by Robert Harris (Arrow, £7.99) is a great story set in the world of finance about markets being manipulated, how technology has changed financial markets and greed. Entirely fictional, of course. In What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets (Allen Lane, £20), Michael Sandel makes a powerful argument that applying market values where they don’t belong – whether in government, education, art or personal relations – can corrode our ideas of right and wrong. The book argues that when we don’t observe the boundaries of markets, we corrupt the values we share. I was proud to have Michael at the Labour party conference this year, encouraging delegates to argue and debate. This is a book that can persuade people that the rules of the economy don’t just reflect our values, they help to determine them – and that is a powerful argument for change.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

 

Ali Smith

I think Peter Hobbs is one of the most fearless, most original and most graceful novelists at work right now. His second novel, In the Orchard, the Swallows (Faber & Faber, £10.99), came out quietly at the beginning of the year. A story of impossible and dangerous love across class, politics and hierarchy in Pakistan and about the risks, the importance and the unexpected hospitality in the act of storytelling, it’s even more proof, if we needed it after his striking debut, The Short Day Dying, of his ability to do anything he likes with voice and to treat form with the elegance and resonance that delivers both these novels as contemporary classics.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Melvyn Bragg

It’s been a very strong year for fiction with some surprising omissions from the Man Book­er Prize longlist. It’s tempting to discuss at least three of the novels I’ve enjoyed but I’d rather concentrate on one – Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99). Barker has steadily built up (beginning with Regeneration) what has a fair chance of turning out to be a great and lasting series of fiction based on the First World War. Toby’s Room can be seen as a companion piece to an earlier novel of hers, Life Class. We’re in the world of art students at the Slade and then the furnace of the trenches. The plot unfurls to a devastating conclusion. It is a very fine piece of work.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Margaret Drabble

Two memoirs of our time: Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton (Jonathan Cape, £25), an indispensable text that needs no description, and Martin Bernal’s Geography of a Life (Xlibris, £17.99), which rambles through an extraordinary academic career. Chronologically and stylistically chaotic – he ascribes the polished prose of his controversial book Black Athena to the talents of his then editor – it is a mixture of unworldly self-revelation and intellectual perseverance, with a cast that includes his father, J D Bernal, his formidable mother, Margaret Gardiner, Elias Canetti, W H Auden, Jessica Mitford, Noam Chomsky, Eric Hobsbawm, Edward Said and many more. I found it gripping, as I have found his work on Eurocentrism, anti-Semitism and the roots of Greek civilisation. It’s the exemplary tale of a cradle leftist, fighting to the end. Known to students and colleagues as “a pasty-faced Maoist” and “that devil Bernal”, he is at once self-deprecating and utterly confident. Not unlike Salman Rushdie.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Ed Balls

One of my earliest childhood memories is reading a sensory storybook with my mum. You could scratch it like a chicken in the yard and smell the lavender as you turned the page. It worked every time! Nigel Slater writes adult versions of those childhood books. And he does it not with texture, potions or even many pictures but simply with words. As you read his descriptive prose – “mild, elusive, savoury yet sweet” – you can just smell that aroma of bay and garlic as the pork shoulder cooks in milk, Italian style. It works every time. This year, I have loved reading Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries II (Fourth Estate, £30). The recipes work. The seasonal chapters are fun. And the writing is just fabulous and so, so aromatic.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: MidnightLounge via Creative Commons)

Tracey Thorn

I loved Zadie Smith’s NW (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) but it is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99) – a brilliant psychological thriller of unreliable narrators and shifting sympathies – that has been my book of the year. A married couple, Nick and Amy, take turns to tell their story through diary entries and first-person narrative, after she has mysteriously disappeared. One of them is an idiot, the other a psychopath; it’s up to you to guess which. When it becomes clear, you then have to decide who you’re rooting for and it’s not as clear cut as you might imagine. Among the page-turning plot twists, Flynn makes room for outbursts of feminist invective that will have you punching the air in solidarity, then remembering whose side you’re on. Exhilarating and creepy, it has sent me rushing off to her other novels.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Colm Tóibín

The value of the new edition of The Book of Kells (Thames & Hudson, £60) is not merely in the quality of the illustrations but the lu­cidity of the explanatory texts by Bernard Meehan. Although my ancestors came to Ireland some centuries after its creation and thus I cannot claim credit for it, I bask in pride that we did not destroy this masterpiece of European art. Another key book that helps to explain Ireland, this time in all its dark tragedy, is Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, edited by John Crowley, William J Smyth and Mike Murphy (Cork University Press, £55) – an enormous tome that sets out the scope of contemporary scholarship on the famine. Amos Oz’s How to Cure a Fanatic (Vintage, £3.99) is a very short book compared to the other two but is invaluable because of his wisdom and the passionate nature of his engagement and his sane effort to find the outlines of an agreement in the Middle East.
 

 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Jesse Norman

My book of 2012 is The New Few: or Very British Oligarchy (Simon & Schuster, £18.99) by Ferdinand Mount. It’s short, ironic, beautifully written and infused with a slow-burning anger at how the fat cats have taken over – in finance, in business, in officialdom, in politics. Starting with the parable of William F Aldinger (who was paid £35m over three years by HSBC for selling them a business on which it lost £40bn), the book elegantly dissects the failures of shareholder capitalism, oligarchy and the centralisation and resistance to change of the Whitehall (and euro-) blob. The result is a formidable and distinctively conservative critique of crony capitalism and its political and economic growth factors. Much to agree with, yet more to admire.
 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

 

Richard J Evans

My book of the year is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Allen Lane, £30). It’s an enormously engrossing study of the personalities and politics of the many different European states that plunged into the disastrous conflict of the First World War. Clark makes the decision-makers come alive, exposes their personal foibles and ambitions and puts them in the context of an increasingly polarised European states system. He has used almost every national archive in Europe and brings some startling new facts to light. And he focuses far more than most historians do on the violent and unstable political maelstrom of the Balkans, where the fuse that led to August 1914 was lit. Clark has got in early for the centenary commemorations and delivered an original and startlingly revisionist work that all the other studies of the war’s origins that will doubtless appear over the next two years will have to take into account.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

 

Alain de Botton

This year, I was touched by Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (Faber & Faber, £12.99). As a non-Christian, indeed a committed atheist, I was worried about how I’d feel about this book but it pulled off a rare feat: making Christianity seem appealing to those who have no interest in ever being Christians. A number of Christian writers have over the past decade tried to write books defending their faith against the onslaughts of the new atheists – but they’ve generally failed. Spufford understands that the trick isn’t to try to convince the reader that Christianity is true but rather to show why it’s interesting, wise and sometimes consoling.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Syniq via Creative Commons)

Laura Kuenssberg

To anyone who is fond of a good snooze, the title alone of Sue Townsend’s The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year (Penguin, £7.99) is ample reason to pick it up. Yet the reward is far more than the pleasure of pondering months cocooned in your duvet. The decision of the improbably named Eva Beaver, a middle-aged librarian from Leicester, to take to her bed for many months gives the creator of suburban teen anti-hero Adrian Mole plenty of scope for gags. Yet it stands out not for those (or the tips on how to avoid bed sores) but for the way it explores the entirely terrifying prospect that if you stop and comprehensively examine your life, you might not like what you see. Unexpectedly memorable and enticingly tough.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Douglas Alexander

Old friends know you well enough to know the books you’ll love. In September, while at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, David Miliband urged me to read Our Divided Political Heart by the Washington Post columnist E J Dionne Jr (Bloomsbury, £19.99). It was good advice. Dionne argues that the US was forged by both individualistic and communitarian impulses and that today’s polarised disagreements about the country’s future reflect fundamentally different and contradictory accounts of America’s history. Its lucid and insightful plea for a new and more balanced public discourse is one that politicians on both sides of the Atlantic would do well to consider. With its broad historical sweep, Dionne’s book reminds us that today’s politics reflects yesterday’s history. Yet in contemporary America, historical accuracy has too often been the victim of partisan passion. If the public realm is filled simply with shouting, the public will simply retreat further from it. Instead, we need politicians brave enough to level with the public, to be honest about the past and candid about the future. What Our Divided Political Heart expresses eloquently is the simple truth that politics as usual just doesn’t cut it.
 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Jenny Diski

Anakana Schofield’s Malarky (Biblioasis, $19.95) and Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home (Faber & Faber, £7.99) are quite different novels, each with their own notable style and imaginative power. Good new novels are rare and here are two of them. Diana Souhami’s Murder at Wrotham Hill (Quercus, £18.99) is a brilliantly formulated and well-written account of a tawdry murder that shines a bright light on postwar austerity England.
 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jon Snow

We continue to live through more than challenging economic times – times in which we begin to wonder if anyone in the financial world actually understands anything at all. Hence my resort to the exceptional Lords of Finance: 1929, the Great Depression and the Bankers Who Broke the World (Windmill Books, £9.99). At times, Liaquat Ahamed’s account of the great crash of the 1920s reads like fiction. More than anything else, he reminds us eloquently how, particularly in banking, history repeats itself. No one, its seems, ever learns.

The death of Eric Hobsbawm provoked me to pick up his wonderful autobiography, Interesting Times: a Twentieth-Century Life (Abacus, £12.99). It is an unexpectedly eclectic, beautifully observed journey through a complex century in which Hobsbawm renders the idea of a great intellectual remaining a communist for 50 years to have been nothing less than normal. Reading this touchingly human book, I learned so much about the history that simply dried up when we were at school.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Julie Myerson

By far the most intense experience I had as a reader this year was with David Vann’s Dirt (Heinemann, £12.99). Words and ideas seem almost dangerous in his hands and yet his work is full of heart. For me that’s probably the definition of perfection in fiction. Emily Perkins also did something brilliantly and differently boundary-smashing with The Forrests (Bloomsbury, £12.99), an ambitious and unerringly feminine family saga flooded with light and life. Her description of how it feels to get a small child dressed after swimming is still with me months after reading.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Simon Heffer

Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Allen Lane, £30) is the best book I have read this year, or indeed for several years. His depth of scholarship, his power of analysis and his ease of style make me pity other lesser historians who will be traversing this ground before the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014. In the same league, and almost as good, is Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: the Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 (Allen Lane, £25), which tells how Hitler’s evil was supplanted by Stalin’s, and details the murder, theft and destruction advanced in the name of Stalin’s ideology. All those minded to excuse the late Eric Hobsbawm’s offensive views on this question should read this book. I also learned much from Reflections: the Piano Music of Maurice Ravel by Paul Roberts (Amadeus Press, £22.95), which illuminates some of the most important work of this great composer.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

James Wood

Karl Ove Knausgård’s extraordinary book, A Death in the Family (Harvill Secker, £17.99), the first volume of My Struggle, didn’t get the attention in English translation that it deserved. Not quite a memoir but not really a novel either, this account of the Norwegian writer’s struggle to become a writer, and his struggle to remain one while dealing with the blows and joys of life (marriage, children, the death of a distant and alcoholic father) is something more like a long dramatic essay, full of description, philosophy, self-examination and pitiless honesty. It creates room for both the lyrical and the prosaic, the shocking and the banal; there are reflections on experiences as diverse as playing in a rock band, looking at Constable’s drawings, reading Adorno, the passage of time, the disappearance of death from our everyday experience and the grim business of clearing up a deceased father’s empty vodka bottles.

Two novels also stood out: Zadie Smith’s NW (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) may have an interrupted and sometimes peripatetic form but there are passages of writing about London (long ones: sections and scenes) more vital and achieved than anything else she has written. Like Knausgård, she is a risk-taker, restless with old forms. Patrick McGuinness’s The Last Hundred Days (Seren, £8.99) was published last year but I only got to it this year. It’s a brilliant first novel set in 1989, in the writhing demise of communist Bucharest – dark, immaculately written, bitterly lucid and very gripping.
 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Joan Bakewell

Seasons in the Sun: the Battle for Britain 1974-1979 by Dominic Sandbrook (Allen Lane, £30) is an enthralling account of turbulent times with detail that is both surprising (the degree of Harold Wilson’s paranoia) and beguiling (punk’s greatest legacy was today’s close-cropped hair). This will stand as the definitive history for a good long time.

Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman (Penguin, £8.99) is a jaw-dropping read charting the way a global media giant infiltrated and influenced our political culture and debased our values. And the story probably isn’t over yet.

In From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet (Quercus, £10.99), John Naughton’s easy journalistic style gives me all the information I sort of knew and facts I hadn’t joined up. He also looks ahead to what might come and offers a timely warning.
 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Mark Damazer

Michael Sandel’s jargon-free and witty What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets (Allen Lane, £20) corrals examples of how we have allowed the language of difficult moral choice to be crowded out by the apparently neutral mechanism of money. Sandel recognises that markets are often the best way to allocate resources but points to areas where the creation of new markets has had unpalatable consequences for fairness and solidarity. His case studies touch on queuing, health care, insurance, advertising and much else. They are often laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes disturbing and always thought-provoking.

I discovered The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth (Granta Books, £9.99) 80 years after its publication. It is a fantastic evocation of the Austro-Hungarian empire heading towards defeat and collapse. It spans three generations of Austrian male officialdom, and both describes and penetrates the traditions and mores of a society in gentle decay. This is a beautiful novel that does not rely on fireworks to achieve its impact. Roth’s portrayal of the buttoned-up Trotta family is unflinching but he leaves you with sympathy for many of his characters – including Emperor Franz Joseph himself.
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

John Gray

Ray Monk’s Inside the Centre: the Life of J Robert Oppenheimer (Jonathan Cape, £30), does what nothing so far written on the enigmatic physicist has attempted: integrating into a seamless whole a profound inquiry into the formative influences on Oppenheimer’s character, a definitive account of his complex role in the development of the atomic bomb and a penetrating analysis of the philosophical implications of the new physics. It is not just a great biography but a powerful work of art.

Will Self’s Umbrella (Bloomsbury, £18.99) has been hailed as a brilliant exercise in high modernism, and so it is; but it is also a superbly realised exemplar of an older and rarer genre – a metaphysical novel in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, exploring the evanescence of consciousness in a material world that can never be finally understood.
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

David Willetts

I was fortunate to chair the panel for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction this year. The worthy winner was Into the Silence: the Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest (Vintage, £12.99) by the Canadian Wade Davis, which sheds new light on history that we thought we knew. It is meticulously detailed and very readable. During the judging process I was struck by how many excellent English-language writers there are at the moment.

Another book that left a deep impression was Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: a History of Violence and Humanity (Penguin, £12.99). It is an optimistic take on the human condition that shows we are less likely to die at someone else’s hands than ever before.

Donavan Hohn’s Moby-Duck (Union Books, £8.99) had the best title. It is the story of 29,000 rubber ducks that fell off a container ship while making its way from China to the US. By the end, this seemingly narrow story had encompassed geography, science and business.
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Ruth Padel

There is no one like the poet Selima Hill. She gets to the heart of a feeling or a thought or a relationship via a symbolism so near the bone, but also so confidingly warm, that you only realise its achievement on second reading. She celebrates the all-too-humanly conflicted unconscious with surrealism and a uniquely lucid, but also lurid, inventiveness. Her tough, chaotic, truthful voice juxtaposes nanoseconds of intimate confidentiality (“having sex with someone when you’re sleepy/is hard enough, as we all know”) with mad zoology (“a tadpole I called Muriel/would look me in the eye as if to say/Give me back my jellied palisades”). Her new book, People Who Like Meatballs (Bloodaxe, £9.95), contains two sequences, one addressed by a woman to a man, one by a woman to her mother, from infant dependence to old age: brilliant, uncompromising, beguiling, painful and very funny. A triumph.
 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: PalFest via Creative Commons)

Pankaj Mishra

Original novels by Tabish Khair – How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (Fourth Estate, £6.99) – and Jerry Pinto – Em and the Big Hoom (Aleph Book Company, £24.99) – revitalised Indian writing in English, a genre that has been subjected lately to premature obituaries. In The World of Persian Literary Humanism (Harvard University Press, £25.95), Hamid Dabashi revealed, with his usual brilliance, yet more aspects of a sophisticated culture to an Anglophone readership. Marwan Bishara’s The Invisible Arab (Nation Books, £17.99) is one of the most insightful accounts of the ongoing transformations in west Asia.
 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

Jane Shilling

Seldom can a book have been more recklessly titled than Ian Sansom’s remarkable tour de force, Paper: an Elegy (Fourth Estate, £14.99). “Imagine for a moment,” Sansom urges his readers, “that paper were to disappear. Would anything be lost? Everything would be lost.” In fact, he comes not to bury paper but to praise it, for its many enchantments: its seductive versatility, its fragile power, its pernicious spread, since its origins in China 2,000 years ago, “like alarm and disease and dreams and despondency”. Sansom’s book (the product, he notes, of “one entire tree”) is vastly knowledgeable, beautifully written, very funny and, as you might expect, a remarkably handsome object in its own right. Probably best not to read it on a Kindle.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Norman Lamont

My favourite reading this year was Christopher Tyerman’s history of the Crusades, God’s War (Penguin, £16.99). The Crusades were an astounding phenomenon that lasted centuries and had a profound impact on medieval European society. For much of the European nobility, the world was as international as it is today. The behaviour of the crusaders was at times shocking, yet piety and devotion were also present. Tyerman stitches together a masterly tapestry of crowns, empires, massacres, chivalry and papal realpolitik. These events cast their shadow today and one is left wondering how George W Bush ever dared utter the word “crusade” in his response to 9/11.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: WikiCommons)

Simon Blackburn

In anticipation of a trip to Ecuador, I picked up Edward Whymper’s Travels Amongst the Great Andes of The Equator (BiblioBazaaar, £22.99), first published in 1892. Part ripping yarn, part scientific investigation, part mountaineering epic, part showcase for Whymper’s own illustrations, it is a reminder of just how versatile, curious and many-sided the great mountaineer was. Few modern travellers could imagine facing the difficulties and dangers that he took in his stride. The final illustration, of a “selection” of his bedfellows in Guayaquil, shows 50 horrendous bugs carefully catalogued by their zoological families but with the disarming comment that the larger species have been omitted because of their size. Awesome.
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Michael Holroyd

Michael Morpurgo: War Child to War Horse (Fourth Estate, £18.99) is an extraordinary hybrid of a book, with seven brilliant chapters written by Maggie Fergusson, one of our most subtly gifted biographers, and responses from her celebrated subject. Her chapters are skilful orchestrations of truth and tact that offer the Morpurgo family an opportunity of finding relief from their troubles. His replies would have been all the stronger on a CD, allowing us to hear the voice that has entranced innumerable children. Jérôme Ferrari’s Where I Left My Soul (MacLehose Press, £12) is a powerful short novel, taking us from Buchenwald and Vietnam to Algeria, and leading to the conclusion that those who suffer most go on to cause most suffering. Anyone who still believes that we should be sending people to American-style jails should read the description of the violent Texas prison in Gary Mulgrew’s Gang of One (Hodder, £8.99).
 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

John Banville

David Thomson is the greatest living writer on the movies – or “movie”, as he prefers – and The Big Screen (Allen Lane, £25) is surely his magnum opus. He starts way back, with the stop-motion photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, and ends with the so-called social network – “Facebook already takes our earnest admissions about ourselves and trades them for advertising” – and other latter-day horrors of the large and small screen. A joyful, passionate and worried book. Other ways of looking are proposed in Caspar David Friedrich, by Johannes Grave (Prestel, £80), a magnificent and uniquely detailed overview of the paintings of this dark and daring master of German Romanticism.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Laurie Penny

Debt: the First 5,000 Years by David Graeber (Melville House, £14.99), is the most important theory book I’ve read this year – an essential take on the current crisis by an anarchist anthropologist who combines credentials with readability. Kate Zambreno’s Heroines (MIT Press, £12.95) is a lush, lyrical feminist memoir structured around a rereading of the lives of the wives of the great modernist novelists who were locked up in institutions when they tried to write themselves. And by far the most fun I’ve had with fiction this year was Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker (Windmill Books, £7.99). Gorgeous prose and a rollicking steampunk spy thriller. Brilliant.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

(Photo: Getty Images)

Geoff Dyer

The claims made by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, £14.99) at first seem thoroughly implausible: that America’s criminal justice system, especially the launch of the “war on drugs”, has functioned to recreate racial segregation of a kind that the civil rights movement was thought to have brought to an end. And this is not just an accidental side effect (of poverty, rising crime rates, lack of education and so on) but a deliberate policy and goal. One is dragged to the middle of the book kicking and screaming – in the time of Obama, this can’t be! – but by the end, the weight of evidence, the extraordinary statistics (a prison population that has leapt from 350,000 to 2.3 million in 25 years) and the subtle power of Alexander’s analysis of “mass incarceration as a racial caste system, not as a system of crime control” prove overwhelming.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Amanda Craig

A novel which stood out for me is Susie Boyt’s The Small Hours (Virago, £14.99), about an eccentric woman who tries to overcome the misery of her own childhood by founding an idyllic nursery for little girls. Like Edward St Aubyn and Henry James, Boyt has an acute sense of how even the rich can live in despair, and the result is an exquisitely written black comedy about innocence, evil and financial ruin. For children of eight and over, Kate Saunders’s The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop (Marion Lloyd Books, £6.99), about a poor family who inherit a shabby shop a stone’s throw away from Ed Miliband’s home, is a must-have. With haunted wallpaper, a talking cat and magical chocolate, it is pure joy for any imaginative child with a sense of humour.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Leo Robson

Nadine Gordimer’s No Time Like the Present (Bloomsbury, £18.99), which uses a mixed-race marriage to explore South Africa under Mbeki and Zuma, is a masterpiece. Philip Hensher apparently cannot stop writing novels, nor, when they are as rich as Scenes from Early Life (Fourth Estate, £18.99), would we want him to; he is becoming the most dependable of English novelists. Michael Anesko’s Monopolising the Master: Henry James and the Politics of Modern Literary Scholarship (Stanford University Press, £30.50), about Leon Edel’s manipulation of Henry James’s descendants, is a gripping and groundbreaking book. The essay collection continues to thrive; of the many I came across this year, the best were Jonathan Meades’s Museum Without Walls (Unbound, £18.99), Dwight Macdonald’s Mass­cult and Midcult (New York Review Books Classics, £9.99), Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours (McSweeney’s, £9.99) and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead (Vintage, £9.99).

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Sketch: Dan Murrell for the New Statesman)

Tim Soutphommasane

In The Passage of Power (Bodley Head, £35), the fourth volume of his epic study of Lyndon B Johnson, Robert Caro sets the gold standard for modern political biography. And with each instalment of this biography, the complex legend of Johnson grows. Caro, now in the twilight of his life, has said that the final volume of “the years of Lyndon Johnson” is not to be completed by anyone other than himself. We can only hope that we are fortunate enough to see this monumental work reach its long-awaited conclusion. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Allen Lane, £20), the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains the limits of rationality with flair. The prestige of universal reason dates back to Plato but Haidt sides with David Hume’s contention that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”. Intuitions and the unconscious ultimately sway us more than reasons – at least that’s the thesis. When it comes to arguments, you have to think about being able to tell a compelling story and pushing the right buttons. It seems obvious enough; yet do we not often fall victim to the hubris of reason?

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Olivia Laing

Two magnificent books this year: Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan (Vintage, £9.99) and Fire in the Belly by Cynthia Carr (Bloomsbury, £25). Both illuminate the divisions in American culture; both are elegant, engaged and full of feeling. Pulphead is a collection of essays drawn from Sullivan’s adventures in America’s heartland. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve pressed it on while raving about the portraits of Axl Rose and Michael Jackson, or the one about the blues, or the cave art hidden beneath Carolina. Strictly speaking, Fire in the Belly is a biography of the 1980s New York artist and Aids activist David Wojnarowicz. Inspiring, angry and meticulously researched, it also serves as a brutally revealing account of the Aids years, among the more shameful periods in American history. Biography of the year, without a shadow of a doubt.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Sam Bradley for the New Statesman)

Ed Smith

Two books about the state we’re in: Antifragile: How To Live in a World We Don’t Understand (Allen Lane, £25) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Ferdinand Mount’s The New Few: or a Very British Oligarchy (Simon & Schuster, £18.99). Mount’s elegant essay explains how capitalism has been corrupted and corroded, leaving us with disempowered shareholders, confused savers and vastly overpaid executives. Where Mount’s book is controlled, Taleb’s insatiable polymathic curiosity knows no bounds. He is as trenchant and persuasive about diet as he is about debt. Taleb is always provocative (“If you see fraud and do not say fraud you are a fraud”), but he is also wise and emboldening. You finish the book feeling braver and uplifted.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

Colin MacCabe

Susan Sontag’s second volume of diaries, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99), covering the years 1964-1980, was a continuous delight. It provides a wonderful record of those years both politically and intellectually, including a trip to North Vietnam in 1968. But it is also laced with personal reflections that offer a portrait of one of the most remarkable intellects of our time.

 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Adam Mars-Jones

I admired a first novel that didn’t seem to get the attention it deserved, I J Kay’s Mountains of the Moon (Jonathan Cape, £16.99). The book has a strong plot but it’s kept in the background, almost suppressed, so as to fix attention on the narrator-heroine, an extraordinary creation, feral and tender. The writing is highly coloured though carefully controlled, full of pain with a strange backwash of joy. Christopher Reid is the least assertive poet of his generation, but unassertiveness can be a persona like any other and his voice is piercing and memorable. Nonsense (Faber and Faber, £12.99) is a strong collection, continuing his explorations of narrative verse. It’s highly entertaining but very far from throwaway.

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

David Marquand

Two books have stood out for me this year. I was bowled over by Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, £20). Professional historians often look down their noses at historical novels, and I dare say university teachers of literature do so too. But the latest addition to the Mantel canon is superb history as well as magnificent literature. It has pace, excitement, astonishing insight into human psychology (much of it extremely nasty) and a wonderful ability to re-create a savage world, halfway between magic and modernity, in which heretics were burned at the stake and traitors were hanged, drawn and quartered. A must. The second is Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (Routledge, £12.99) – a long overdue part of my education but better late than never. I disagree with almost everything it says, but I have to admit that it is a work of genius, crackling with intellectual passion and barely suppressed rage. Nothing produced by liberals or social democrats in the past 60 years equals it for forensic power. After reading it, it is not difficult to see why the Hayekian New Right found it so easy to step into the breach left by the collapse of postwar Keynesian social democracy in the terrible decade of the 1970s – or why the crisis of our time has not yet produced a comparable counterattack.

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Toby Litt

One book amazed me: Sharon Olds’s Stag’s Leap (Jonathan Cape, £10). It would be easy to be cynical and say that this is exactly the book one might have expected Olds to write, given the circumstances (Olds’s husband left her). Yes, this is exactly the great, heartfelt, monumental book – so much better than anything a cynic might write. There’s something of Emily Dickinson’s scour in this summation: “I was not driven/Against the grate of a mortal life, but/just the slowly shut gate/of preference.” The folk poem “Left-Wife Goose” is unlikely to be left out of any future anthology of 21st-century poetry. It even smuggles a Cocteau Twins lyric into its sorrowful clapping song. “Inter, Mitzy, Titzy, Tool,/Ira, Dura, Dominee,/Ocker, Poker, Dominocker,/Out Goes Me.” Stag’s Leap reads as the obverse of Robert Lowell’s auto­biographical wankathons. This is the other, better side.

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

(Photo: Getty Images)

Adam Gopnik

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: a History of Violence and Humanity (Allen Lane, £12.99) got some ferociously nasty reviews when it came out. It was easy to see why: its argument that violence has diminished, and pretty drastically, over human history in general and over the past few centuries in particular – mostly owing to the spread of Enlightenment doctrines of kindness, tolerance and fair procedure – seemed counterintuitive, even fatuous, in the century after the Gulag and Treblinka. Though already a Pinker fan, I read it with some suspicion, but my doubts were soon dissuaded by the sheer weight, detail and quiet eloquence of the data Pinker marshals in support of his argument. Most of the time, when we read even a very good book with a theory we don’t like we come away unconvinced; only time, friends and many rereadings move us off home base in its direction. With this one, the rarest thing that can happen with a book happened: I began sceptical, sat up halfway through to consider and ended persuaded.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Editorial Intelligence via Creative Commons)

Sarah Churchwell

Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (W W Norton, £20) is the latest in a growing list of books that reconstruct the making of novels – the literary critic’s version of a DVD film commentary, offering behind-the-scenes contexts and insights into a masterpiece, in this case James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Gorra’s book contributes to another welcome trend as well, the turn away from turgid, jargon-ridden literary criticism and back towards the belle-lettristic essay. Blending biography, history, travelogue and review essay, Gorra opens up James’s classic novel with elegance, nuance and grace, and reminds us what the master still has to teach us about art, free will, choice and America along the way.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Douglas Hurd

After the death of Edward VII in 1910, people began to ask how far he was responsible for the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale. In her excellent biography, Bertie (Chatto & Windus, £30), Jane Ridley puts this argument to bed. She concedes that Edward, unlike his father, did not amend official documents but in 1903 he had driven through the streets of Paris and proclaimed that this was a city where he felt at home. In 1914, while the diplomats played their ambiguous games, the French people remembered the king who had been their friend. The king had spoken and for them this was the voice of Britain.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

Adam Thirlwell

Of new things, I think I most loved Chris Ware’s Building Stories (Jonathan Cape, £30), where the sadness of the narrative is fractured by the fizziness of its construction: a gorgeous box full of miniature overlapping stories. The best prose was in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (Fourth Estate, £18.99), while I’ve found myself rereading Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home (Granta Books, £12.99), which comes out early next year, trying to work out this short novel’s intricate structure of gaps and holes. As for old things, the new complete version of Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary (Yale University Press, £15.99) is one jubilant, gruesome, unsparing self-portrait; while another is contained in The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard (Library of America, $35), whose prose is as deadpan good as Warhol’s or Gertrude Stein’s, but funnier than both of them.

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Talitha Stevenson

The books that most expanded my soul this year are proof of the power of non-fiction to defamiliarise the ordinary and familiarise the strange. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection of essays, Pulphead (Vintage, £9.99), is a Cadillac-on-the-freeway tour of Americana. In my favourite essay, about a Christian rock festival, he combines irreverence with reverence as only the holiest fools know how. Gerald Hughes’s Ted and I: a Brother’s Memoir (The Robson Press, £16.99) is the genesis story of Ted Hughes’s gods. Misty accounts of Ted as a child, keeping little fish in jars, marvelling at Gerald’s mature rat-shooting skills, show the vulnerability of a man whose excess of talent and beauty ensured that one day his failings would be deemed a universal threat.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

John Sutherland

The best thriller of the year was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99). The plot is as sexually edgy as a potato embedded with razor blades. At the risk of heading Private Eye’s logroller list of shame, the most impressive scholarly work I have read this year is my former colleague Rosemary Ashton’s Victorian Bloomsbury (Yale University Press, £25). There is a library’s worth of research compressed between its covers. The finest memorial volume was Peter Campbell’s Artwork (Profile Books, £30), a rich collection of his watercolours with feeling introductions about their late colleague by Bill Manhire and Jeremy Harding. I miss him too.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Getty Images)

Andrew Adonis

My book of the year is Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland? by Pasi Sahlberg (Teachers College Press, $34.95), an inspirational story of social progress that masquerades as a technical account of the Finnish education system. It includes data from Finnish social surveys showing that Finnish men view teaching as the most desirable profession for a spouse, ahead of nursing, medicine or architecture; and that among Finnish women only medical doctors and vets rate higher than teachers in what Sahlberg calls the “Finnish mating markets”. “This clearly documents both the high professional and social status teachers have attained in Finland,” he adds with dry wit. If only the same were true of England. We could make it so, with a collective will.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Christopher Ricks

David Ferry is a transcendent American poet who has not had his due over here, where, until now, only his eloquent translation of Gilgamesh has been published. At last, one of the UK’s best publishers of poetry does right by him, with On This Side of the River: Selected Poems (Waywiser, £12.99), a handsome representation of his life’s work at its best, up to this very year. Ferry’s cadences are firm and touchingly tentative, his phrasing individually turned, his poignancies unsentimental. The true voice, or rather the true voices, of feeling, as clear as a bell, from a great poet, now of a great age. Alive with stoicism’s wit, “Turning Eighty-Eight, a Birthday Poem”, a recent one-line poem, is no flat line: “It is a breath-taking, near-death, experience.”

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Jonathan Derbyshire

John Jeremiah Sullivan pulls off quite a trick in the essays collected in Pulphead (Vintage, £9.99) – he mines the residual weirdnesses and oddities of the “other side of America” without ever condescending to his subjects. His piece on Michael Jackson, in particular, is a miracle of imaginative sympathy, as well as being the best bit of writing about music I’ve read in years. Sullivan’s big subject is the search for self-definition. It’s Ben Lerner’s, too. In his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (Granta Books, £14.99), Lerner makes a kind of refined comedy out of his grad student narrator’s gnawing sense of his own inauthenticity.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

(Photo: WikiCommons)

John Burnside

David Gilbert may have spent the past 30 years in jail for his part in an attempted appropriation of funds by the Black Liberation Army in 1981 but his analytical powers, compassion and imagination are as keen as ever. In Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond (PM Press, £15.99), he offers more of the urgent yet cool-headed political analysis that made his No Surrender (2004) vital reading for a new generation of activists. This time, it is more personal on the surface but don’t mistake this for yet another memoir of the 1960s – it’s a masterclass in political analysis and activism from someone whose integrity and lack of ego have allowed him to learn crucial lessons from the failures of his time in the Weather Underground and from the continuing struggles for justice and dignity in the various prisons where he has been incarcerated for far too long.

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

One of the most informative and also entertaining books I have read this year is Mr Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer by Peter Clarke (Bloomsbury, £20), an account of Churchill’s career as journalist and author. It was a remarkably highly paid career: he made the modern equivalent of £10,000 a month as a 25-year-old correspondent in the Boer war, then, 30 years later, the same for frankly lightweight pieces in the News of the World and he dealt with his publishers in a way that was sometimes barely honest.

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Craig Raine

Julia Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic (Penguin, £12.99) is about Japanese women who came to America to marry Japanese husbands in 1900 – perhaps the first mail-order brides. This very short, entirely original novel, narrated in the first-person plural, an incantatory “we”, adumbrates lives, traumas, years with poetic brevity. A paragraph of only three or four sentences, for example, will tell you about a mother who has left an illegitimate daughter behind – the daughter she will dream about for the rest of her life, at always the same age, mesmerised by a dead bee in a puddle of dirty water. Here, a sentence, a swift, exact brushstroke, can capture pain with the paint still wet. A masterpiece.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Peter Wilby

Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets (Allen Lane, £20) is the most effective demolition of the neoliberal project I have read, all the better because it prefers cool analysis to passionate denunciation. Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman (Allen Lane, £8.99) is a lucid, riveting and sometimes frightening account of the hacking scandal. I enjoyed reading Ed Smith’s Luck (Bloomsbury, £16.99) far more than I enjoyed watching him bat. The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All by Richard Pring (Routledge, £24.99) is a salutary reminder from Oxford’s professor of education of how much damage successive education ministers have done.

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

 

Benjamin Kunkel

Part of the nature of contemporary life seems to be to take for granted and project into the future conditions that are in fact rare and fleeting. Two recent books struck me as especially welcome corrections to this habit. Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (Verso, £16.99) examines the simultaneous rise of fossil-fuelled capitalism and mass democracy, and asks very intelligent questions about the fate of democracy when oil production declines. And From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (Allen Lane, £20) by Pankaj Mishra, is a reminder, by way of an intellectual history of Asian responses to imperialism, that European intellectual and political predominance was a freak of history unlikely to be sustained. Whatever else may distinguish this century from the last one, the geographies of thought, politics, and energy are all being remade.

 

 

 

 

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

 

Jason Cowley

No book has absorbed me more this year than D T Max’s biography of the American writer David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story (Granta Books, £20). Wallace was a novelist, essayist and teenage tennis champion. He was also clinically depressed for much of his life. His fiction is exuberantly experimental – cerebral, hilarious, sad, slightly bonkers – and his magazine essays and narrative reports are tremendously good. He collected pathologies. One Californian summer day in 2008 he hanged himself in the house he shared with his wife. He was 46. Another strange, tormented man of remarkable gifts is Tiger Woods, the greatest and most self-demanding player ever to strike a golf ball. In The Big Miss (Crown Archetype, £17.99), Hank Haney breaks all confidences as he tells the story of the years he spent as Woods’s coach. The end of their time together coincided with the golfer’s public disgrace and catastrophic loss of form. Woods is revealed to be an unfathomably remote narcissist who yearned to be not just the best player of his generation – he’s certainly that – but a champion for all the ages and a moral example to all men.

 

Index
Rowan Williams | A S Byatt | Ed Miliband | Ali Smith | Melvyn Bragg | Margaret Drabble | Ed Balls | Tracey Thorn | Colm Tóibín | Jesse Norman | Richard J Evans | Alain de Botton | Laura Kuenssberg | Douglas Alexander | Jenny Diski | Jon Snow | Julie Myerson | Simon Heffer | James Wood | Joan Bakewell | Mark Damazer | John Gray | David Willetts | Ruth Padel | Pankaj Mishra | Jane Shilling | Norman Lamont | Simon Blackburn | Michael Holroyd | John Banville | Laurie Penny | Geoff Dyer | Amanda Craig | Leo Robson | Tim Soutphommasane | Olivia Laing | Ed Smith | Colin McCabe | Adam Mars-Jones | David Marquand | Toby Litt | Adam Gopnik | Sarah Churchwell | Douglas Hurd | Adam Thirlwell | Talitha Stevenson | John Sutherland | Andrew Adonis | Christopher Ricks | Jonathan Derbyshire | John Burnside | Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Craig Raine | Peter Wilby | Benjamin Kunkel | Jason Cowley | Alex Preston

(Photo: Writers Centre Norwich via Creative Commons)

Alex Preston

Olga Slavnikova’s 2017 (Duckworth, £9.99) is a dystopian novel about scientists speculating for gems in the fictional Riphean Mountains. There are breathtaking, baroque descriptions of the natural world, a love story set against a desolate cityscape, exquisite touches of magic realism and science fiction. It is one of the most bizarre, beautiful books I’ve read in years.

 

 

 

 

 

Creative Commons
Show Hide image

Starting Star Wars: How George Lucas came to create a galaxy

On the 40th anniversary of the release of the original Star Wars, George Lucas biographer James Cooray Smith shares the unlikely story of how the first film got made.

While making THX 1138 in 1970, writer/director George Lucas told composer Lalo Schifrin that he wanted to make a Flash Gordon picture, an updating of the 40s sci-fi serials that he’d enjoyed as a child. It would, however, be those serials not as they were, but how he remembered them as having been. When the rights to these proved unavailable, he began to work on original idea, hoping to create something similar, but which he would own himself.

In January 1973, after completing his 50s nostalgia picture American Graffiti but before its release, Lucas began his outline for this space adventure. The first line of this near-incomprehensible document was The Story of Mace Windu. Mace Windu, a revered Jedi-Bendu of Opuchi who was related to Usby CJ Thape, Padewaan learner to the famed Jedi.’

"Jedi" was a word Lucas had coined to describe a clan of warrior mystics who were essential to his story. A man whose fascination for Japanese cinema had become a general interest in Japanese cultural history, he’d named them after the branch of Japanese drama that drew moral and instructive lessons from stories set in the past – Jidai geki.

This version is set in the thirty-third century and features a teenage Princess, droids, an Evil Empire and a grizzled Jedi warrior, General Skywalker, whose plot role resembles Luke’s from the finished film, although his character is Obi-Wan Kenobi’s. It climaxes with a space dogfight and ends with a medal ceremony. Among the planets named are Alderaan (here the Imperial capital) and Yavin, at this point the Wookiee homeworld. Some characters from this draft (Valorum, Mace Windu) would eventually find a home in The Phantom Menace more than twenty years later.

By May Lucas had a 132 page script, The Adventure of Anikin Starkiller. Skywalker had acquired the forename Luke but was no longer the protagonist. This was Anikin (sic) Starkiller, one of the sons of General Skywalker’s old comrade, the partially mechanical renegade Kane Starkiller. Anikin had to protect a Princess, aided by two robots R2-D2 and C-3PO.

Lucas had worked backwards from Flash Gordon, looking to uncover the source of his appeal, hoping to transfer it to his own story. Once he’d worked his way through the comic strips of Gordon’s creator Alex Raymond, he tackled Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne and Edwin Arnold’s Gulliver on Mars. Conversations with his New Hollywood peers about the archetypes thrown up by his reading – and which he increasingly saw everywhere – brought him into contact with Joseph Campbell’s then newly published Myths to Live By (1972) an anthology of lectures and essays from a man who devoted his career to identifying the basic archetypal characters and situations which he felt underpinned all human mythologies.

"The book began to focus what I had already been doing intuitively" Lucas later said, an idea which seemed to him to itself reinforce Campbell’s contention that such archetypes and situations dwelled in a collective unconsciousness. Lucas expanded his reading to epics of all kinds, and began planning a visual style that would combine the vistas of Japanese master director Akira Kurosawa with the kind of static-camera realism which he’d used on American Graffiti.

Lucas wanted over-exposed colours and lots of shadows, but shot in a way that made them seem unremarkable. Seeing the Apollo missions return from the moon "littered with weightless candy bar wrappers and old Tang jars, no more exotic than the family station wagon" had illustrated to him the problem with every fantasy movie ever made. Their worlds never looked like people lived in them. His film would depict a "used future". Describing the aesthetic he’d sought to American Cinematographer he explained: "I wanted the seeming contradiction of…fantasy combined with the feel of a documentary."  To Lucas Star Wars wasn’t science fiction, it was "documentary fantasy".

There was only one studio executive Lucas thought had any hope of understanding what he was trying to do, Fox’s Alan Ladd Jr, son of the late actor. Like Lucas and his contemporaries in New Hollywood, Ladd was a man driven by a love of cinema. Lucas could communicate with him through a shared vocabulary, describe a planned scene as being like something from The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) or Fahrenheit 451 (Francois Truffaut, 1966) and be understood. Ten days after his presentation to Ladd, they signed a development deal. Fox agreed to pay Lucas $15,000 to develop a script, plus $50,000 to write the movie and another $100,000 to direct it, should it actually be made. American Graffiti associate producer Gary Kurtz was named as Producer for Star Wars, and received $50,000.

The script development money gave Lucas enough to live on whilst he continued work on the screenplay. As he did so it changed again; a ‘Kiber Crystal’ was written in and then written out. Skywalker became Deak Starkiller’s overweight younger brother before becoming the farm boy familiar from the finished film. Characters swapped names and roles. A new character named Darth Vader – sometimes a rogue Jedi, sometimes a member of the rival ‘Knights of Sith’ – had his role expanded. Some drafts killed him during the explosion of the Death Star, others allowed him to survive; across subsequent drafts his role grew. Some previously major characters disappeared altogether, pushed into a "backstory", Lucas choosing to develop the practically realisable aspects of his story.

This is an important clarification to the idea that Star Wars was "always" a part of a larger saga, one later incarnated in its sequels and prequels. That’s true, but not in an absolutely literal way. Star Wars itself isn’t an excerpted chunk of a vast plotline, the rest of which was then made over the next few decades. It’s a distillation of as much of a vast, abstract, unfinished epic as could be pitched as a fairly cheap film to be shot using the technology of the mid 1970s. And even then much of the equipment used to make the film would be literally invented by Lucas and his crew during production.

In August 1973 Graffiti was released and became a box office sensation, not only did the profits make Lucas rich (he became, at 29, a millionaire literally overnight) its success meant that Lucas was able to renegotiate the terms of his Fox deal. Rather than making demands in the traditional arenas of salary and percentages Lucas wanted control of the music, sequel and merchandising rights to his creations. Fox conceded him 60 per cent of the merchandising, aware of its potential value to them, but eventually agreed that Lucas’s share would rise by 20 per cent a year for two years after the film’s release. Few films made money from spin-off products for a whole 24 months, and Star Wars would surely be no different. Lucas got the sequel rights as well, albeit with the proviso that any sequel had to be in production within two years of the film’s release or all rights would revert to Fox.

Most important amongst Lucas’ demands was that, if it went ahead, he wanted the film to be made by his own company, not by Fox. That way he could control the budget and ensure all charges and costs made to the production were legitimately spent on the film. The experience of watching Mackenna’s Gold being made while a student on placement a decade earlier had taught him just how much money a studio could waste, and on a film like Star Wars – which was both ambitious and would inevitably be under-budgeted – it was crucial that this did not happen. Control of the music rights also had a sound reason behind it. Universal were making a fortune out of an American Graffiti soundtrack that was simply a repackaging of old hits featured in the movie. Of the profits of this Lucas saw nothing despite having selected the tracks featured and fought long and hard for their inclusion in his film.

In March 1975, Ladd took Lucas’ draft to the Fox board. They passed it and budgeted the film at $8.5m. Characters bounced in and out of that script right up to the preparation of the shooting draft, dated 15 January 1976. This was tailored to be as close to the film’s proposed budget as possible, and contain as many of the ideas, characters and situations Lucas had spent the past few years developing as he considered feasible.

This draft is the first version of the script in which Kenobi dies fighting Vader. Previously he had been injured, but escaped with Luke’s party. Alec Guinness, who had already been cast, was initially unhappy with this change, but was persuaded by Lucas that a heroic death followed by appearances as a spectral voice would prove more memorable to audiences than his spending the last third of the film sitting on Yavin whilst the X-Wings went into battle.

Filming began on location in Tozeur, Tunisia on 22 March 1976. Before shooting Lucas sat his crew down and made them watch four films which he felt between them defined what he was after in Star Wars. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1969), Douglas Trumbull’s 1975 Silent Running, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time In the West and Fellini’s Satyricon (Both 1969). The Leone picture was full of the sun-blasted vistas Lucas wanted to evoke for Tatooine, and the Fellini film, with its aspects of travelogue and attempts to portray an entire society in a fly-on-the-wall manner gave an idea of the "documentary fantasy" approach the director was so keen on. All four films shared one vital element: they’re windows onto lived-in worlds remarkable to audiences but regarded as ordinary by the film’s characters.

The first scenes shot for Star Wars were those of Luke buying Artoo and Threepio from the Jawas outside his foster parents’ home. Producer Kurtz had allowed 11 days for the shoot, after that a borrowed army C130 Hercules was scheduled to pick up the cast and crew.

A few days into shooting, creature make-up man Stuart Freeborn was taken ill and had to be flown back to Britain where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Other crew members contracted dysentery. On 26 March Tunisia experienced its first winter rainstorm for half a century, damaging equipment and exterior sets delaying filming of key scenes.

Lucas wanted the stormtroopers to ride ‘dewbacks’, dinosaur-like domesticated beasts that allowed the troops to move across the desert. One dewback was built, out of foam rubber stretched over a wire frame. It could only be used in the background and no one was ever seen riding one. The other live animal Lucas wanted to portray was a Bantha, a huge horned, shaggy beast reminiscent of a prehistoric mammoth. It was to be the mode of transport for the Tusken Raiders, faintly Bedouin, vaguely mechanically-enhanced humanoids who attacked Luke in the Jundland wastes. In the end, creating the beasts proved impossible, and while they were referred to in dialogue in scenes that were shot (‘bantha tracks…’) none of their sequences were lensed.

As hard as the shoot was on Lucas, he at least had an idea of what he was trying to do and how it would all fit together. The actors, suffering stomach troubles, sunburn and long days, were less clear. Anthony Daniels trapped inside an almost immovable fibreglass body suit suffered the worst. Twenty five years later he would give credit for helping him to get through the Tunisia filming to Alec Guinness. "He was incredibly kind to me…I firmly believe that I wouldn’t have completed that arduous task of shooting without him."

Once the Tunisian shoot was over, the cast moved to EMI Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, outside of London. Star Wars was being made in the UK because it wasn’t possible to shoot the film in Hollywood at that time, not that Lucas – with his lifelong disdain of LA itself – wanted to anyway. Star Wars required nine stages simultaneously, something that no Hollywood studio complex could guarantee at anything like sufficient notice. In March 1975 producer Kurtz had flown to Italy to look at studio space, but found nothing suitable. He then caught a plane to London, where Lucas joined him.

Together they scouted UK film studios. Pinewood was a possibility, but management insisted Lucasfilm hire their technicians, a condition which became a deal-breaker. Neither Shepperton nor Twickenham had enough sound stages (although the giant Stage H at Shepperton  - bigger than any stage at Elstree – would ultimately house one scene of the film) which left only EMI Elstree. Then losing £1 million a year, Elstree was being kept open more or less on the insistence of Harold Wilson’s government, whose allies in the Trades Union movement considered the closing of the facility unconscionable. Elstree had no staff, and anyone who wished to rent it had to supply their own technicians and much of their own equipment. Off-putting to many, it sealed the deal for Lucas and Kurtz, who wanted to move their own people in. They hired the facility for seventeen weeks starting at the beginning of March 1976.

To design and build the sets needed to turn to Elstree into a realisation of Lucas’s screenplay they hired John Barry, a British designer who had worked under Ken Adam on Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975) a film Lucas admired enough to hire its costumier John Rollo as well.

Elstree’s two largest stages were given over to Mos Eisley Spaceport and the interior of the Death Star. Both the Mos Eisley hangar bay and the one inside the Death Star which replaced it on the same stage were constructed around the full size Millennium Falcon set created by John Barry’s protege Norman Reynolds. Built by Naval engineers at Pembroke Dock, Wales it was 65 feet in diameter, 16 feet high and 80 feet long. It weighed 23 tonnes.

The absence of Stuart Freeborn, still recovering from Tunisia, meant that most of the aliens seen in the Mos Eisley cantina sequence were completed by assistants and lacked any articulation at all. Unhappy with the scenes as shot, Lucas resolved to do to re-shoots back in the USA.

The last scenes to be shot were for the opening battle, as Vader and his stormtroopers boarded the blockade runner. With little time Lucas used six cameras, manning one himself (Kurtz manned another) and shot the sequence in two takes. The six cameras produced so many different perspectives on the action that even the duplicated events that are in the film are unnoticeable. The finished sequence, chaotic though the creation of it was, is amongst the best put together moments in the movie, a superb evocation of Lucas’ documentary fantasy approach, and the cameras dart in and out of the action like reporters shooting newsreel footage. Virtually the first live action seen in the picture, its style later went a long way towards convincing audiences that what they were seeing was somehow real.

Principal photography completed on 16 July 1976, although some re-shoots and pick up shots for the Tatooine sequences were undertaken in Yuma, Arizona in early 1977. Amongst those scenes shot were those featuring the Banthas. Lucas borrowed a trained elephant from Marine World, and had it dressed to resemble a more hirsute, fearsome pachyderm. Mark Hamill was unavailable to participate. He’d crashed his car of the Antelope Freeway in LA shortly before and was undergoing painful facial reconstructive surgery. Although Hamill should have been involved in the re-shoot, in scenes of Luke’s landspeeder moving across the desert, Lucas had no choice but to film them without him; he took a double to the shoot, dressed him in Luke’s costume and put Threepio in the foreground. Also re-shot, over two days in La Brea, California, were portions of the cantina sequence. New cutaways and background shots were filmed to be inserted into the Elstree footage in order to eliminate as of the unsatisfactory masks as possible.

While supervising editing of the film Lucas experienced chest pains, and was rushed to hospital where he was treated for a suspected heart attack. He was later diagnosed with hypertension and exhaustion, both exacerbated by his diabetes.

Fox were by now trying to book Star Wars into cinemas, and had picked a release date in May, long before the 4th July public holiday, long regarded as the opening weekend of summer. Fox wanted $10m in advance bookings for Star Wars, desperate to recoup an investment that internal studio sources had now decided was foolish. They secured less than $2m, and achieved that only by implying to theatres that they wouldn’t be offered Charles Jarrot’s much-anticipated The Other Side of Midnight if they didn’t sign up for Star Wars too. Before its release several exhibitors complained at this "block booking" and filed suits; Fox was later fined $25,000 for the practice, punished for forcing cinemas to agree to show something which was, by the time they paid the fine, the most financially successful movie ever made.

In early 1977 Lucas screened Star Wars for a group of friends, it was nearly finished – although the opening crawl was longer and many of the special effects shots were absent, represented instead by sequences from World War II films and real combat footage shot by the USAF. Among those present were Brian De Palma, Alan Ladd Jnr, Steven Spielberg and Jay Cocks. Martin Scorsese had been invited but troubles editing his own New York, New York meant he didn’t turn up.

De Palma hated Star Wars, and spent the post-screening dinner rubbishing it to anyone who would listen. Others present were unsurprised, De Palma had behaved in the same way during the group screening of Scorsese’s’ Taxi Driver; laughing loudly through Cybill Shepherd’s conversations with Robert de Niro, and at one point shouting "Shit!" halfway through a tense scene. Only Spielberg seemed impressed, and told Lucas that he thought Star Wars would take $100m. Lucas pointed out that nothing took $100m, and countered that Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind would do better at the box office. The two directors wrote what they considered realistic estimations of what each other’s film would make in its first six months of release on the inside of matchbooks, which they then traded. By the time Lucas got round to opening Spielberg’s matchbook and saw the figure $33m in his friend’s scrawling hand Star Wars had already made ten times that.

Odd as it seems now, when every blockbuster is prefaced by months of breathless, unrelenting media "enthusiasm", Star Wars wasn’t released on a wave of hype or accompanied by an extensive marketing campaign. It was released (on 25 May 1977) to thirty-two screens, after a barely publicised premiere at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. It made $2.8m in its opening week, but didn’t receive a nationwide release for two months. Despite almost unprecedented success in preview screenings, Fox were still unsure of what to do with Lucas’ bizarre children’s film. Indeed it, only got a Hollywood opening at all because William Friedkin’s Sorcerer – which had been intended for this slot at Mann’s – wasn’t finished.

So negative had advance feeling about Star Wars been that Lucas left the country; he was still in LA on opening day, finishing the sound edit (he was unhappy with the copy playing downtown, and unknowingly embarking on a lifetime of revising his movie) but the next day he and his wife (and Star Wars film editor) Marcia flew to Hawaii, where they were joined by friends, including Spielberg and Amy Irving. It was an attempt to escape what Lucas felt would be the inevitable terrible reviews and wrath of the studio. Even when Ladd called him to share his excitement over the movie’s colossal opening weekend, Lucas was unmoved; all movies labelled science fiction did well in their first few days due to the business attracted by the neglected fanbase for such things. It was only when the film continued to do outstanding business and was expanded to more and more theatres that Lucas considered returning early from his holiday, and began to realise that the film he’d just delivered had changed his life.

As "Star Wars" expanded into more cinemas, and people began to queue round the block to see it, shares in Fox climbed from well under $10.00 to $11.50 each; over the next three months the value rose to $24.62, nearly trebling in price, such was the film’s value to the embattled studio. It was a magnificent vindication for Alan Ladd Jr, who had more than once had to intervene to stop colleagues closing down the film’s production completely. He had never lost faith in Lucas and his bizarre idea, but he was virtually the only person employed by Fox itself who hadn’t.

Just a few weeks before, as the end of the financial year approached, Fox had tried, and failed, to sell its investment in Star Wars to a German merchant bank as an emergency pre-tax write off.

0800 7318496